By Poulomi Das Nov. 16, 2018
Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s Mohalla Assi, starring Sunny Deol, releases today after a three-year-long fight with the CBFC. But it hardly feels like a victory. Instead the film feels weakened by its dated release, punished for being critical of the government.
Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s controversial Mohalla Assi – based on the book Kashi Ka Assi by Dr Kashinath Singh – has been in the making for the last six years. Since 2011, Mohalla Assi has flitted through several release dates to finally hit the theatres today. Set in a 1988 Varanasi neighbourhood, the film covers the 10-year-period in India that witnessed events which defined the country we live in today – the Babri Masjid demolition, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, and the recommendations of the Mandal Commission.
Yet the release hardly feels like a victory. Instead the film – intended to be a scathing critique of caste politics, prejudice, conservatism, the commercialisation of religion, and the emergence of the Hindu Rashtra – feels weakened by its dated release. Its delayed opening at the theatres doesn’t just undermine the film’s relevance but also renders its prospects pointless. As it stands, Mohalla Assi is an unfortunate example of a film that suffers without a release and even with it. But more importantly, it is an important reminder of the lengths that the country’s Censor Board can go to silence voices critical of the government.
Perhaps, the worst thing about Mohalla Assi’s reality is that its fate was carefully pre-decided by the CBFC. On paper, India’s statutory certification body – that comes under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting – is tasked with “regulating the public exhibition of films under the provisions of the Cinematograph Act 1952”. But in reality, CBFC has over the last few years, increasingly been invested only in “censoring” films, effectively punishing films inconvenient for the government.
The influence of the CBFC in India is such that no film can be released in theatres or broadcasted on television, without being certified by it. This invariably leaves a host of filmmakers who use their films to respond to government policies, critique the state of affairs in the country, and investigate government atrocities, at its mercy.
The film’s makers went a step ahead and slapped a case of contempt against the CBFC for not passing the film.
Back in 2015, Mohalla Assi was one such film.
The film’s troubles with the Board started out when the trailer was leaked online and led to widespread protests in Varanasi. Hundreds of people marched on the streets, offended by the splattering of expletives uttered by a man dressed as Shiva in the trailer. They demanded the removal of that scene, citing that it hurt “religious statements” and followed it up by filing an FIR against Deol. And in about a week, the Delhi High Court stayed the film’s release. Despite the filmmakers and actors going on record to claim that the leaked trailer was an uncensored cut. But the damage was done.
Even before Mohalla Assi was submitted to the Censor Board, its fate had been unanimously decided. In April 2016, the CBFC – led by Chairman Pahlaj Nihalani – banned the film, declining to issue a certificate because of its “potentially inflammatory statements”. Approaching the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, didn’t help matters either – the reviewing body asked for 10 modifications. Incidentally, Dwivedi – a former CBFC member himself – was one of the few who had expressed dissent against Nihalani’s “propensity to censor films instead of merely certifying them”. In an interview this year, Dwivedi implied that his film was being punished, “I don’t know what the agenda was, but every possible attempt was made by the CBFC and the FCAT to delay the film.”
The CBFC’s treatment of Mohalla Assi isn’t an exception. Nihalani’s tenure has been marked by his insistence that filmmakers toe the line, exploiting the tactic of delaying the release of films that don’t follow his diktat. Films like Udta Punjab, Haraamkhor, Lipstick Under My Burkha, and S Durga, and the investigative documentary En Dino Muzaffarnagar have all been victims of the censorship. These filmmakers are then left with no choice but to double up as activists and partake in a protracted legal battle meant to drain them.
Securing a theatrical release in a country that embraces conservatism and eschews rebellion is no mean feat: It requires a considerable amount of time, effort, money, and clout. The best evidence is undoubtedly Anurag Kashyap’s unreleased Paanch. Back then, Kashyap, a relatively new director with no standing in the industry, had little choice but to submit to the CBFC’s wishes. But that wasn’t the case two years ago, when Udta Punjab came under the Censor Board’s ire: Kashyap, the film’s producer, took the CBFC head-on, ultimately managing to reverse their decision.
Not all filmmakers are however that lucky, given that the CBFC routinely targets industry newcomers. Sanal Sasidharan for instance, had to contend with S Durga being dropped from IFFI, Goa at the last minute and make do with a crowd-funded limited release in Kerala. While Meera Chaudhary’s En Dino Muzaffarnagar is yet to get a CBFC certificate. The only recourse for filmmakers who want to retain their voice and sidestep the CBFC, is to eye an online release or keep fighting.
Last year, frustrated by the hold-up of Mohalla Assi, Dwivedi prepared for a legal battle: He approached the Delhi High Court which set aside the orders of the CBFC and allowed the film’s release with one cut and an Adult certificate. The film’s makers went a step ahead and slapped a case of contempt against the CBFC for not passing the film. And it was only in January this year, that the CBFC – now headed by Prasoon Joshi – was forced to clear Mohalla Assi despite their wishes, putting an end to Dwivedi’s arduous struggle.
Dwivedi may have won, but the CBFC ensured that Mohalla Assi lost.
From being a body that safeguarded cinematic voices, the CBFC has now become an obstacle, that exists to strangle these voices. To be a filmmaker in India, you don’t just need to have the vision to make a film, but also the courage to fight a legal battle to demand a basic right: Seeing your film release in theatres.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.